Category Archives: Pacific Northwest

A Q&A with Poet David Biespiel

For National Poetry Month, we are pleased to share a conversation with poet David Biespiel, author of Republic Cafe.


It’s Monday, 10am. Would you tell us your motto for writing poems?

My motto would be, writing poems is impossible. That’s my motto. It’s impossible for me to do anything else, first of all, but to write poems. But, to write a poem? What is that? What is a poem? Every effort to write a poem is as much a soaring success as it is a terrible flub. It’s impossible to write in the direction I want to write, because as soon as I get close to that point on the horizon I’ve been aiming toward, what I’ve been trying to write appears different to me. Everything I’ve been doing, therefore, is wrong. A failure. In a catalogue essay from the 1960s of a MOMA exhibition of Alberto Giacometti’s work, there’s this opening paragraph in Peter Selz’s introduction:

‘To render what the eye sees is impossible,’ Giacometti repeated one evening while we were seated at dinner at the inn at Stampa. He explained that he could really not see me as I sat next to him—I was a conglomeration of vague and disconnected details—but that each member of the family sitting across the room was clearly visible, though diminutive, thin, surrounded by enormous slices of space. Everyone before him in the whole history of art, he continued, had always represented the figure as it is; his task now was to break down tradition and come to grips with the optical phenomenon of reality. What is the relationship of the figure to the enveloping space, of man to the void, even of being to nothingness?

That about covers it—for writing. It’s impossible. And, that’s exactly what makes it so freeing, so enticing.

What led you to become a writer? And, specifically a poet?

I recently published a book on this subject, The Education of a Young Poet. I think I became a writer because I liked messing around with words, with sentences. I liked the feel of moving a verb from the front of a sentence to the end. I liked feeling curious about whether I should end a sentence on a noun, or start with a noun. I liked seeing the figure of ideas and images form, from one word to the next, one phrase and one clause to the next, one sentence and one paragraph to the next. That’s what I liked and what I still like at the most tactile/DNA level of writing. Writing a poem is all of that on steroids. Now, with a poem, too, you have lines to enhance even more new relationships between adjective and noun, for instance. It’s mind-blowing.

As for why I became a poet? Writing poems, for me—because I write poems and nonfiction—I find that poetry offers greater velocity than prose and also poetry dwells more deeply in metaphor. Speed plus associative feeling. That’s two things that draw me to write poems. Underneath all that is an interest in asking questions that, perhaps, poetry can reflect upon. Writing Republic Cafe I was interested in the importance of forgetting, as opposed to the more traditional interest in the importance of remembering. So I was writing the poem—the long poem that’s the centerpiece of the book—to reflect upon that question. And yet, that’s the paradox. The close I got to dramatizing what I was forgotten, I began to see it, or remember  it, differently. So the book is trying to figure out what to make of that enigma.

Did you write the book in Portland?

Mostly, yes. In late 2012, during the production period for Charming Gardeners, which UW Press published in 2014, I began taking notes and studying the patterns of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour in Portland. Then, in the fall of 2014, I went to West Texas and wrote for a month without interruption. That’s where I drafted the book. I worked on it for several years after that, and then, in late 2017, I put the book through a big revision after Linda Bierds read it. I did that revision in my house here in Portland over several weeks.

Many writers begin their career with teachers and models. Republic Cafe is your sixth book of poems since 1996. Did you have a model when you first started to write? Do you now?

When I first started to write, I was mostly alone. Not alone in the world—well, not entirely alone in the world, I mean—but alone with my books, with paper and pen. No teachers. I had no guidance. Later I studied with several wonderful poets. At the University of Maryland I studied with Stanley Plumly, Michael Collier, and Phillis Levin. At Stanford, when I was a Stegner fellow, I studied with W.S. Di Piero and Ken Fields. Because Stan Plumly introduced my first book, I suppose I’m most identified with him, and I’m extremely grateful to have studied with him. Truth be told I still learn things from him. From him personally—we’ve remained close for thirty years. And especially through his poems, which are remarkable for their warmth and tenderness. Before those teachers came along, and ever since, I would say Walt Whitman has been a model for me. I don’t mean the man so much—not to dismiss the man, that is, but I mean the writing. His engagement as a poet with language and life. The nexus of self and society that is the hallmark of his poetry. I’ve learned from Whitman that while images never become out-of-fashion or obsolete, blow-hardedness does. Commentaries do. Explaining or psychoanalyzing kills invention. Kills metaphor. Kills freshness. What’s so great about Whitman is he still feels contemporary. It’s the 200th anniversary of his birth this year, and he still feels in touch with our own time. Whitman doesn’t try to explain his motivations. Instead he conveys a consciousness. That’s the thing I’ve most tried to learn from Whitman. To write a poem is to invent a consciousness. But, of course, it’s impossible.


Biespiel photo 2David Biespiel is a poet, critic, memoirist, and contributing to writer to American Poetry Review, New Republic, the New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate. He is poet-in-residence at Oregon State University, faculty member in the Rainier Writers Workshop, and president of the Attic Institute of Arts and Letters. He has received NEA and Lannan fellowships and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Balakian Award. He has previously published The Education of a Young Poet, Wild Civility, The Book of Men and Women, and Charming Gardeners. You can buy his most recent collection, Republic Cafe by clicking here.

What Tahlequah Said

Even writing that headline, I feel the lilt and wash of the ocean in the language of the Salish, who consider the orca, qal̕qaləx̌ič in Lushootseed, their kin.

We show our own smallness, place a frame around an individual creature, when we name an orca in human terms. But somewhere along the line, people felt that this particular orca needed a name we could relate to. Tahlequah supposedly means “mother of waters.” J 35 suggests a science experiment, not just a study of existing conditions, and we have been conditioned to expect experiments to fail.

Of all the noise we were subjected to in 2018, the most important message we received was from Tahlequah. She brought her baby to full term only to have it die within a few minutes of birth. Those of us who have experienced pregnancy know that your body prepares you during the whole gestation for the miracle of being twinned somehow, divided so that you will have two bodies to care for until the little one is fully grown. I can imagine the surging hormones experienced by this mother orca as her calf was born and failed to thrive. What could she have done? Nothing. But she understands that the conditions humans have created in the Sound make it impossible for the near-shore orcas who depend on Chinook salmon for their food to survive. She carried that dead baby with her for seventeen days, until it fell apart, so that we would see her and it, and get the message.

While it is in many ways a series of humorous books, Douglas Adams got it right when he named one of his books “So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish” as the farewell message from the dolphins while departing from a future earth, no longer considered tenable by its oceanic inhabitants. As the dolphins desperately try to tell us that we are doomed, that we need to leave, we ooh and ah and applaud their apparent hijinks. We are incapable of understanding that we are not the only creatures on earth with an understanding of time, life, and mortality.

While there is ample evidence around us of global warming and impending disaster, we are aggravating this scenario with our willful inaction. A couple of months ago the governor of the state of Washington, Jay Inslee, rolled out some points to enhance his standing as a protector of the environment. This included some language about saving the orcas, but not an obvious one: take down the dams that are keeping Chinook salmon from reproducing. The Snake River was once their breeding ground, but fewer and fewer salmon make it past all the obstacles we have placed in their way. The Chinook are not reproducing, and the whales are starving to death. It doesn’t take summersaults, it doesn’t take naming orcas, to figure that out.

In spite of our reluctance to face the obvious, nature has been very forgiving. The dams on the Elwha River were removed a couple of years ago, and the natural life of the river is surging back at a miraculous pace. Its native salmon have been waiting almost a hundred years to return to their spawning beds. Just imagine! They had to return from the open ocean to the mouth of the river each year, only to be turned back by dams. Again. And again and again. But now they made it.

Can we save the Chinook? In my opinion, there is only one way to find out. Take down the dams. Ease up on the hatchery fish, which probably just compete with the wild salmon for scarce resources.

Almost unremarked, another orca died on January 28, 2019, after a short illness. Kayla was thirty years old, what should have been the half-way point in her life, when she suddenly sickened and died. She lived at Sea World in Orlando, Florida, which has been the site of many questionable practices concerning orcas.

“We shared our salmon,” wrote Jack Flander of the Yakima Nation in The Seattle Times (1/29/19), speaking for the orcas, “but you took more than your share,” leaving us little to survive on. “Our waters became polluted. Our infant mortality rate increased … Imagine what a brotherhood and sisterhood we could have shared. Now imagine that I am an Indian.”

With the paperback issue of my book, The Deepest Roots, I wish I had a more cheerful introduction to offer. But the same warning bells are going off as when I started this book. What’s more, the current administration has made the work that we do to conserve the environment even more difficult, and even more important.

Every person I interviewed for The Deepest Roots has a different story to tell, a different relationship with the land and the sea. Some of them are gone now, having passed their legacies on to younger farmers and fisher people. They are remembered with fondness, their penchant for barbeque, or having created fertile soil through sheer willpower.

Others have begun to engage with the land and the people in a more entrepreneurial fashion, looking to the eastern horizon and the inevitable population growth that will take place on the island. We wonder if our children will return, and what it will be like for them in ten, twenty, one hundred years from now. Will the salmon continue to wait for us?

This book has raised as many questions as answers, but people continue to approach me thoughtfully, usually with their own stories to share. I hope The Deepest Roots encourages you to see the place where you live with new eyes, and to see yourself as an active partner in its salvation and recovery. As storyteller Vi Hilbert would say, “Haboo!”


Kathleen Alcalá is the author of a collection of essays, The Desert Remembers My Name: On Family and Writing; three novels, including Treasures in Heaven; and a collection of short stories. She lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

To learn more about The Deepest Roots, buy your copy of the book today!

Welcome, ALA Midwinter!

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The University of Washington Libraries and Press are pleased to welcome participants to the American Library Association’s 2019 Midwinter Meeting in Seattle. While you’re in town, we invite you to explore the city with self-guided walking tours from two recent UW Press books, Art in Seattle’s Public Spaces: From SoDo to South Lake Union and Seattle Walks: Discovering History and Nature in the City.

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Excerpts from these books are freely available on the University of Washington’s instance of a new publishing platform, Manifold.

Two chapters from Seattle Walks will introduce you to a fascinating collection of clocks, gargoyles, and hatch covers stretching across the heart of the city, offering a glimpse into the histories behind them.

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Hatch cover by Nathan Jackson, 1976

The chapter from Art in Seattle’s Public Spaces features extraordinary artwork in and around the Washington State Convention Center, including Games by the renowned artist Jacob Lawrence.

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Games, Jacob Lawrence, 1979

Click here for information about these pieces and many more, and enjoy your walk!

 

What Prisoners Tell Us: The Making of Concrete Mama

Concrete Mama: Prison Profiles from Walla Walla, by Ethan Hoffman and John McCoy, won the Washington State Book Award in 1981 for its stark, sympathetic portrayal of life inside the maximum-security prison. The University of Washington Press is publishing a new edition of the book, long out of print but as relevant as ever.

McCoy was recently interviewed by prison scholar Dan Berger, who wrote the book’s new introduction, in Berger’s class at the University of Washington Bothell. For University Press Week, here are some edited highlights from the interview about our neighbors behind bars.


DAN BERGER: Why did you decide to write about the prison?

JOHN MCCOY: My first glimpse of the penitentiary was as a cub newspaper reporter at the Walla Walla Union Bulletin. At that time—this was 1977—the State Penitentiary was ending a reform experiment in which prisoners were allowed a fair amount of autonomy inside the walls and allowed outside furloughs. The theory was that the more contact that prisoners have with the outside world, the better the chances are that they can be safely returned to society. But this reform project was failing. I wondered why.

So you and Ethan Hoffman, a photographer at the paper, quit your newspaper jobs to do a book on the penitentiary?

The guard in 9-tower, his rifle ready, watches as new prisoners arrive “on the chain,” a bus that carries them shackled from the state corrections reception center in Shelton.

Yes. Ethan and I spent four months in the fall and winter of 1978-79 inside the prison. We were allowed to come in as early as 5:00 in the morning and stay as late as 10:00 p.m. We were unescorted, which was absolutely crucial. If we walked around with a guard, we were not going to get any information from prisoners. Then, towards the end of our time there, we spent some time with guards, which was interesting, because some prisoners who had talked to us earlier ceased talking to us. It’s a very polarized world inside prison.

How did you approach doing the book?

As journalists. Ethan and I were not prison experts. We simply wanted to photograph and report on what we saw inside the walls. Here’s what prisoners tell us. Here’s what their day-to-day life is like depending on whether they’re tough or vulnerable, men or women, black, white, or brown. Here’s what the Parole Board members say. Here’s what the warden says. Here’s the guards.

Besides the warden, did you have to talk to others to get access?

Not to get access—but politically, I had to talk to the head of the guards’ union and the prisoners who served on the Resident Council, the elected representatives of the general population.

One thing that helped pave our way with prisoners was Ethan’s decision to give anyone who asked a nice 8-by-10-inch black-and-white portrait photo of themselves. So Ethan had guys posing with weights, stripped to the waist, displaying all their tattoos. He took pictures of whatever they wanted, but one picture only. And in return, they signed a release form that said we could use these pictures in the book. Ethan spent a lot of nights in the darkroom because prisoners wanted quick results. Nonetheless, the decision created a lot of goodwill and gave us great access.

Kim, right, spends time with Leomy, his “inside lady” and a member of Men Against Sexism, a club popular with prison gays and queens.

At this time, there were all kinds of areas that were off limits to guards. So, in order to enter these areas, we had to have either the president of the Lifers’ Club, or the Chicano Club, or the Meditation Group, or Men Against Sexism, or some other prison leader, either accompany or approve us. We had to tread cautiously. If we got crosswise with any particular group, we would be out of there, or we could have caused harm to ourselves. There were certainly some tense situations with both prisoners and guards.

Could you describe an average day in those four months you were there?

Prisoners were locked in their cells overnight. The day began with morning chow, about 7:00, for the general population—those not confined in the segregation unit or in protective custody.

Prisoners were released by tiers and walked to the chow hall—an ugly, cold brick building with a lot of cold metal tables and metal serving trays. Sometimes there were fights in the chow hall, or food was thrown, and guards intervened.

Some prisoners spend hours playing dominoes in the black prisoners’ club room.

After chow, most prisoners had nothing to do. There were certainly not enough jobs to employ even a minority of the 1,400 prisoners. So they were free to go back to their cells or wander the breezeways. There was recreation time in the gym, the weight room, and the Big Yard, where prisoners played baseball, card games, and smoked weed. On occasion, the bikers were permitted to race their motorcycles around the inside perimeter. There was also a limited education program—which soon ended when the Legislature withdrew funding—in which prisoners could complete their GED or get community college credits or university credits. Occasionally, there were movies or shows in the auditorium.

Some prisoners hung out at their private club rooms. Although you could get an infraction for smoking weed, it was basically tolerated. And there was heroin and other drugs smuggled in from outside.

You could work if you could find a job in the kitchen, chow hall, laundry, license plate shop, or elsewhere. Pay was pitiful—a few cents an hour. The primary advantage of a job was access to things you could steal and then exchange or sell.

Lockup in the evening came early, right after dinner, unless you had a permit to be out for work or prison business.

Because most of the population spent most of their time in four-man, 10-by-12-foot cells, your cellmates were very important. The Resident Council ostensibly helped prisoners find compatible cellmates. But there were powerful guys in the prison who really controlled the cells. Often, you had to buy a cell. Sometimes you’d get a cell equipped with a television, a nice mattress, and so on, but you paid for that. And you paid for that with money, drugs, sex, cigarettes, pruno—which is prison-brewed liquor—or other things.

What did you expect to find at the prison and did you find it?

First of all, we knew it was a good and unexpected story. Look, these guys are in motorcycle gangs, and they’re in prison, and they’re racing their Harleys? We knew Ethan could get fabulous pictures. I mean, a sweat lodge—I’d never been to a sweat lodge before, and certainly not one inside a prison. A casino night at the Chicano Club. There were transgender or cross-dressing dancers. There was sex, there was drugs. So, without making a judgment call, we had to ask: What’s happening here? And why?

“Nert,” left, and “Kickstand” are bikers, cellmates and tattoo enthusiasts.

Our hope was to do a fair, balanced, and accurate account of life inside a state penitentiary—a notorious state penitentiary, perhaps—at a time in which hard questions continued to be asked about the purpose of prison.

How do you know you got at the truth?

Ethan had it easier, because photos don’t lie. I had to pursue multiple sources. Sometimes I heard prisoners explain their crimes and protest their innocence in ways that were preposterous. Fortunately, a helpful prison trustee was willing to share confidential records with me. And a prison attorney was quietly willing to access court records for me. I was able to verify prison stories and eventually developed a pretty good BS detector.

How did the experience of those four months in the prison affect you?

I went away humbled by the experience. I left with the strong feeling that this is really a destructive place. It’s destructive for those who are there, both keepers and the kept. It’s dangerous. It does little to help people adjust to the real world. In fact, it destroys a lot of prisoners’ chances of having a successful transition.

And it picks on the poor, the less educated, and the mentally ill. Incarcerated people are disproportionally poor and minorities. They have unaddressed behavioral issues; learning issues; addiction issues. Their keepers, at Walla Walla and prisons elsewhere, tend to be disproportionally white, rural, with a high school education, often veterans, and with limited understanding of those they are charged with “correcting.”

Why is Concrete Mama relevant 40 years later?

Ed Mead, a founder of the radical George Jackson Brigade and a Marxist revolutionary serving time for armed assault on a bank, is confined to the “intensive segregation unit” commonly known as “the hole.”

For two reasons: First, prison life doesn’t change much. Prisoners spend most of their time caged. They have little to do. They band together for protection and personal gain. And they generally leave prison more alienated and damaged than when they came in. As a result, two-thirds of them return.

Secondly, starting in the early 1970s, Washington State had tried to reform its prisons by emphasizing rehabilitation rather than punishment. That meant giving prisoners a good deal of autonomy with the expectation that if they could make something of themselves inside, they could be successful on the outside. For a variety reasons, it was a failure. Ethan and I were there as the experiment finally fell apart. But you have to ask, what have we done since?


John A. McCoy is the author of A Still and Quiet Conscience, a biography of Seattle Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen. He was a reporter and editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Walla Walla Union-Bulletin and has taught writing courses at the University of Washington-Tacoma and Seattle University.

Dan Berger is associate professor at the University of Washington Bothell, and an interdisciplinary historian focusing on critical prison studies. He is the author of several books, including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, and coauthor most recently of Rethinking the American Prison Movement.

To learn more about Concrete Mama: Prison Profiles from Walla Walla or to buy your copy of the book, click here.

Exhibitions on View: ‘Captive Light: The Life and Photography of Ella E. McBride’

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Ella McBride, Untitled (self-portrait with camera shadow), circa 1921. Gelatin silver print, 9¾ × 7⅜ inches. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Janet Anderson Collection UW38940.

We are delighted to distribute the catalog, Captive Light: The Life and Photography of Ella E. McBride, to accompany the exhibition at the Tacoma Art Museum. The exhibition is on view through July 22, 2018.

Internationally acclaimed fine-art photographer Ella McBride (1862–1965) played an important role in the Northwest’s photography community and served as a key figure in the national and international pictorialist photography movements. Despite her many accomplishments, which included managing the photography studio of Edward S. Curtis and being an early member of the Seattle Camera Club, McBride is little known today. Captive Light: The Life and Photography of Ella E. McBride reconsiders her career and the larger pictorialist movement in the Northwest.

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Edward S. Curtis, Untitled, 1897. A party of Mazamas on the summit of Pinnacle Peak. Mount Rainier 1897 Collection, Mazamas Library and Historical Collections, VM1993-016 print03. [McBride is the woman in the center in the striped shirt, bow tie, and high crowned hat. Curtis is to her left, holding a camera, wearing glasses and a white neckerchief.]

An avid mountain climber, McBride was a member of the Mazamas, a Portland, Oregon mountaineering organization. She met Edward S. Curtis in 1897 when he was leading an ascent of Mt. Rainier. They became friends and Curtis convinced her to leave her teaching position to relocate to Seattle and assist him in his studio. She accepted, and by 1907, she was the manager of his studio. In 1916, she opened her own commercial studio, which she operated for more than thirty years.

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Ella McBride, ‘A Shirley Poppy,’ 1925. Gelatin silver print on Textura tissue, 9½ × 7¼ inches. Private collection. Photo © TAM, photo by Lou Cuevas. [‘A Shirley Poppy’ was shown in nineteen national and international salons.]

McBride embraced the painterly qualities of Pictorialist photography enthusiastically. In 1921, she participated in her first exhibition. During the 1920s, she was listed as one of the most exhibited Pictorialist photographers in the world. She was a prominent member of the Seattle Camera Club (active 1924–1929). She also worked as an advocate for the environment and cofounded the Seattle branch of the Soroptimist Club, an organization for business and professional women.

Unfortunately, her artistic ambitions were cut short by the realities of the Great Depression. Most of McBride’s photographs and negatives have been destroyed, but you can see some of her studio photos here.

Captive Light: The Life and Photography of Ella E. McBride surveys McBride’s development as an artist and her role in Washington’s early photography community through a selection of over sixty of her images of flowers, still lifes, portraits, and landscapes. This exhibition was organized by Tacoma Art Museum and is part of the museum’s Northwest Perspective Series. 

All images photo © TAM.

 

Photo Essay: ‘Razor Clams’

What is the ultimate Father’s Day gift? Is it buried treasure, or is it spending time with loved ones? Why not both? This year, give Dad a guide to a hobby you can enjoy together.

In Razor Clams, David Berger shares with us his love affair with the glossy, gold-colored Siliqua patula and gets into the nitty-gritty of how to dig, clean, and cook them using his favorite recipes. In the course of his investigation, Berger brings to light the long history of razor clamming as a subsistence, commercial, and recreational activity, and shows the ways it has helped shape both the identity and the psyche of the Pacific Northwest.

Project Razor Clam
Washington State has many symbols – a state song, a state bird, a state tree – and now a move is underway to designate the Pacific razor clam as the state clam. Coastal legislators Brian Blake, Joel Kretz, Steve Tharinger, and Jim Walsh introduced House Bill 3001 in February and they plan to reintroduce the non-partisan bill again during the next legislative session. Rep. Blake, a razor clammer since childhood, says the Pacific razor clam well deserves the official title of state clam for its significance to the state’s history, identity, and economy.

Learn  more about the Pacific razor clam and celebrate the publication of Razor Clams at this event:

July 10 at 1 p.m., Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau, Redmond Senior Center, Redmond, WA


What drives thousands of people to Pacific coast beaches every year, regardless of the season or the weather? The unique activity known as razor clamming: chasing after the delectable Pacific razor clam, endemic to the West Coast and especially numerous in Washington, Oregon and south-central Alaska. When I first moved to Seattle, I had heard something about the near-mythic activity of razor clamming, and one year I finally tried my hand. I was startled to find a horde lined up on a sandy beach near Ocean Shores, Washington, lanterns and headlamps bobbing in the pre-dawn darkness like so many fireflies, waiting for the low tide. I only managed to get one clam that dig, but I became an aficionado. Over time I learned that razor clamming is sometimes challenging, sometimes cold and wet, but always fun. My wife and I eventually had many questions about the activity and the razor clam itself, which led to writing Razor Clams: Buried Treasure of the Pacific Northwest.

In researching the book I discovered just how important the resource has been for the region’s history and identity. The clams were an important food source for coastal Northwest Native Indians and early settlers. Large-scale commercial exploitation began after 1900 with canned razor clams becoming a cupboard staple. Following WWII, commercial canning petered out, but the undertaking as recreation continued to grow, and today razor clamming regularly attracts folks of all ages armed with shovels, tubes, buckets, nets and a shellfish license. For many people it is their favorite outdoor pursuit, a profound family-centric experience, part ritual and part way of life. Other natural resources have fallen by the wayside, but razor clamming and its time-honored rhythms endure.

The photos below show key aspects of the modern recreational fishery as well as iconic moments from the past.

Digging for Pacific razor clams near Copalis Beach in Washington state. A good low tide and favorable weather can bring out a horde of people. Razor clamming is a quintessentially Northwest phenomenon.

Credit: David Berger

This woman is using the tube to remove a coring of sand and, with luck, a razor clam as well. While the Northwest is famous for shellfish such as oysters and mussels, most of these are farm-raised. Pacific razor clams, by contrast, are only available as a wild food.

Credit: David Berger

An old-timer puts his razor clams in a vintage wire basket once used for gathering eggs. Razor clamming attracts folks of all ages and gender. It’s not too unusual to read in a coastal obituary that “so and so loved to razor clam, and took pride in always getting a limit.”

Credit: David Berger

A family heading to the surf with aluminum tubes and buckets. Razor clamming is a family-centric activity, one of the qualities that make the undertaking so special.

Credit: David Berger

Some people are darn serious about getting their legal daily limit of clams. This gentleman is using a special narrow-bladed shovel to dig for clams. Razor clams are wily and can move down quickly in the soft sand near the water. Shovel diggers by the surf must be quick about their business.

Credit: David Berger

The quarry, the Pacific razor clam. A variety of clams around the world are called razor clams, but this species, Siliqua patula, is only found on the West Coast on certain beaches from northern California to south-central Alaska. It is a large, meaty clam prized for the table. To prepare, razor clams are removed from the shell, cleaned of sand and viscera, and then fried, sautéed or made into chowder.

Credit: David Berger

A razor clam festival in Long Beach, Washington in 1940. A highlight was cooking the “world’s largest clam fritter,” in a giant skillet. The fritter required two hundred pounds of razor clams and twenty dozen eggs.

Credit: Pacific Shellfish Ephemera/Matt Winters Collection

Like salmon, razor clams are an icon of the region and part of cultural identity. In Long Beach, WA, visitors love to take pictures next to a wooden razor clam sculpture as well as the original pan from the 1940s razor clam festival. The razor clam squirts on the hour and is squirting here if you look closely.

Credit: David Berger

A cup of razor-clam chowder at the Razor Clam Festival chowder competition in Ocean Shores. Acknowledging the razor clam’s importance and enthusiastic supporters, Washington state has two razor clam festivals each spring, one at the city of Long Beach, the other at the city of Ocean Shores.

Credit: David Berger

Women and men in 1910 collecting razor clams and Dungeness crabs. The clams are in the wire-wheeled cart in the middle of the photograph. Razor clams have been popular for as long as there have been people on the coast including among the original Native American inhabitants.

Credit: Museum of the North Beach

Commercial clammers with surf sacks harnessed to their bodies. They were collecting primarily for the razor clam canning industry and could easily gather several hundreds of pounds on a good low tide. The canning of razor clams faded away in the post-WWII 1950s era.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the number of people digging razor clams recreationally swelled as folks realized they could drive to the beach with the family, enjoy the seashore, dig some clams, and have a fine meal of the tasty bivalve.

Postcard. Credit: Alan Rammer collection

In Washington and Oregon people are allowed to drive on the beaches. Utilizing a vehicle helps make the activity easier to undertake regardless of the weather, which is sometimes cold, wet, and windy.

Credit: David Berger

Father with his son and a net full of clams, in 2014. Despite the emergence of “nature-deficit disorder” and such distractions as professional sports teams and video games, razor clamming remains a living tradition in the Northwest that attracts many tens of thousands every year.

Credit: David Berger


David Berger has been a contributor to the food feature, “Northwest Taste,” in the Pacific Magazine, and is former art critic for the Seattle Times. He is a recipient of a Metcalf Fellowship for Marine and Environmental Reporting.

Seattle Independent Bookstore Day

The last Saturday in April is one of our most favorite and sacred literary holidays — Independent Bookstore Day. Here in Seattle, we are especially excited since UNESCO declared us a City of Literature last year as part of the Creative Cities Network.

Use #BookstoreDay to see all of the fun nationwide, and #SEABookstoreDay (Instagram and Twitter) to follow along with us in Seattle.

Wherever you are, make sure you visit your nearest indie tomorrow!


Celeste Ng, author of the bestselling novels Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere, is 2018 Ambassador for Independent Bookstore Day.

Join the 3rd annual SEABookstoreDay Challenge:
If you visit three bookstores on the SEABookstore Passport Map, you’ll receive a 30% one-time coupon, good for any participating bookstore. If your passport has stamps from all 19 stores, you’ll get an invitation to the Grand Champions party and a Grand Champion Card, good for 25% off for the entire year at all participating bookstores (card must be presented along with ID). Visit the SEABookstoreDay Facebook page, Seattle Independent Bookstore Day site, and Independent Bookstore Day site for details.

Ada’s Technical Books

Book Larder – 4 p.m. A Year Right Here author Jess Thompson

BookTree Kirkland

Brick & Mortar Books

Eagle Harbor Books

Edmonds Bookshop

Elliott Bay Book Co.

Fantagraphics Books

Island Books

Liberty Bay Books (all locations)

Magnolia’s Bookstore

The Neverending Bookshop

Open Books: A Poem Emporium

Phinney Books

Queen Anne Book Company

Secret Garden Books

Third Place Books (all locations)

The Traveler

University Book Store (all locations)
U District store event schedule
Mill Creek store event schedule